The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) indicated that its members will discuss the role of tradition in Protestant theology after president Francis Beckwith rejoined the Roman Catholic Church and resigned on May 5. Beckwith, a philosophy professor at Baylor University, also surrendered his ETS membership. He originally hoped to retain membership, but changed his mind after considering contentious ETS debates, the most recent of which is over open theism. Beckwith said that two past ETS presidents told him he would still be welcome to join those discussions.
"Because I deeply desire a public conversation among Christians about the relationship between Evangelicalism and the Great Tradition," Beckwith wrote, "a public debate about my membership status, with all the rancor and stress that typically goes with such disputes, would preempt and poison that important conversation."
Beckwith grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but departed as a teenager in the early 1970s through the influence of the Jesus Movement and Catholic charismatics. Beckwith said his perspective began to change over the last few months as he read Christian leaders from the early church. He said they showed him that "the early church is more Catholic than Protestant." Reading Roman Catholic theologians on justification convinced him that the Catholic view "has more explanatory power to account for both the biblical texts on justification [and] the church's historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries." Finally, Beckwith attributed his conversion to "clear direction" from the Lord. In late April, Beckwith agreed to sponsor his 16-year-old nephew, who will be confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church on May 13. Sponsors must be in full communion with the church.
Reaction to his conversion so far has been fierce. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike have inundated blogs with comments that reveal still-fresh, centuries-old wounds.
"[My conversion] is a unique opportunity to be able to engage both my Catholic friends and my Protestant friends in a way that we can have mutual understanding and maybe move toward some sort of Christian unity, even if it's not ecclesiastical," Beckwith told CT.
Beckwith has frequently employed Roman Catholic teaching as an apologist, and he has worked closely with Roman Catholics in fighting abortion. Still, some friends did not expect him to take the step.
"I was completely surprised," said Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. "I had no indication at all that it was coming. And I think if you ask Frank, he had no expectation that it was happening until three and a half months ago."
The ETS executive committee regarded Beckwith's resignation as "appropriate." The committee's eight members, including acting president Hassell Bullock of Wheaton College, said in a May 8 statement that ETS membership is not compatible with "wholehearted confessional agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. All ETS members annually must affirm that "the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs." The statement does not say what precisely constitutes "the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety." But the ETS executive committee noted that by including the Apocrypha, the Roman Catholic canon differs from what evangelical Protestants recognize. In addition, the committee said Roman Catholics recognize certain extra-biblical statements as infallible, including when the pope speaks ex cathedra. Ex cathedra statements have affirmed Mary's immaculate conception and her bodily assumption.
Debate over open theism preempted previous attempts to discuss Roman Catholic theology, said Bock, ETS president from 2000 to 2001. He expects discussion will address at least six areas: justification by faith, the role of the pope, Mariology, the sacraments, the extent of the biblical canon, and how Protestants' and Roman Catholics' views on each other have changed.
Gregg Allison, associate professor of church theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaches about Roman Catholicism and previously worked with Campus Crusade for Christ in Rome and at the University of Notre Dame. He affirmed the desire many Christians have to connect with church tradition, but noted that Roman Catholics do not merely affirm the early church. They also recognize apostolic succession that ties together both the Council of Trent, which anathematized Protestants, and the Second Vatican Council, which recognized Protestants as brothers.
"I would consider myself an evangelical who deeply appreciates the great tradition of the church," Allison said, "but it's a chastened tradition."
Still, Allison said Beckwith's conversion should act as a wake-up call for evangelicals to consider tradition. Writing in 2002 for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Scot McKnight said a connection with history is one reason why some evangelicals have lately flocked to Rome.
"Evangelicals need to have this conversation about our relationship to the great tradition," he said. "Evangelical churches in general need to think more carefully about historical theology and our historical rootedness. This dearth of historical consciousness and [the habit of] reinventing the church every half generation are biting us with people like Frank Beckwith."
Collin Hansen is a CT associate editor.
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David Neff interviewed Beckwith about his conversion.
Other recent news articles include:
Prominent evangelical returns to Catholic roots | Baylor professor resigns as head of conservative intellectual group. (The Dallas Morning News)
Baylor prof Beckwith becomes Catholic, resigns as head of evangelical society | Renowned evangelical philosopher Francis Beckwith has become a Roman Catholic and, as a result, has resigned as president -- and also as a member -- of the Evangelical Theological Society. (Associated Baptist Press)